In which we meet Anne Beddingfeld, orphaned (if you can be orphaned at her age) and inquisitive adventuress, who witnesses the death of a man at Hyde Park Corner tube station and subsequently gets caught up in a realm of intrigue which takes her from London to Marlow to South Africa, on the hunt for the mystery man named “the Colonel”. Unsurprisingly, she does discover his identity; but rest assured gentle reader, I won’t give the game (or the name) away.
Christie dedicated the book to her husband Archie’s old teacher, E A Belcher: “To E.A.B. In memory of a journey, some Lion stories and a request that I should some day write the Mystery of the Mill House“. He did indeed have a property called Mill House – in Dorney, although in the book Christie transports it to Marlow. She based the character of Sir Eustace Pedler on Belcher, and in her autobiography recalled how she found it very difficult to flesh him out in print until she hit on the brainwave of having Pedler narrate part of the book himself. Hence the book is three quarters narrated by Anne, and one-quarter by Pedler. The two different narrative voices add to the vitality and rhythm of the book, which is a very entertaining read, even though it is at times ridiculously far-fetched.
One of the criticisms of the book at the time of publication is that it was not a detective whodunit in the tradition of her earlier works, but more of a general thriller. Some were disappointed to find that Hercule Poirot does not make an appearance. You wouldn’t have guessed, reading this in 1924, that the one character in it who would feature in later Christie books would be Colonel Race; for although he plays an important part in the book, he doesn’t strike me as having much of a personality that would make him worthy of future inclusion. Christie obviously thought differently, as Sir Eustace points out when describing Race: “He’s good looking in his way, but dull as ditch water. One of these strong silent men that lady novelists, and young girls always rave over”. I think it’s a shame that Anne doesn’t reappear in later books – although she’s a bit bossy and a little patronising, using the knowledge she gleaned from her late father of Palaeolithic times to bully and intimidate, she’s nevertheless a jolly girl, with lots of spirit and daring, never flinching in the face of disaster. Still, I guess she ends up happy and contented – even if in a rather unconventional lifestyle for the time – and Christie felt it was best to leave her where she settled.
Although you get the sense that Anne hasn’t had a very exciting life before the book starts, she’s clearly a thoughtful and perceptive person who makes insightful comments on life. “”My wife will be delighted to welcome you” insists Mr Flemming, her solicitor and wannabe guardian, when he offers her the chance to live with them for a while. “I wonder if husbands know as much about their wives as they think they do. If I had a husband, I should hate him to bring home orphans without consulting me first.”” Mrs Flemming is sweetness and light when they meet, but then she overhears their conversation. “A few minutes later another phrase floated up to me in an even more acid voice: “I agree with you! She is certainly very good looking.” It really is a hard life. Men will not be nice to you if you are not good looking and women will not be nice to you if you are.” Anne and Mrs Flemming rub along as best they can under the circumstances, until it is time for Anne to leave: “she was a good, kind woman. I could not have continued to live in the same house as her, but I did recognize her intrinsic worth”. She’s cheeky with Lord Nasby, she’s resourceful enough to save Harry Rayburn’s life with her nursing skills, and she’s even able to release herself from capture by cutting through the gag that binds her; but despite all that, when it comes to the crunch she’s more traditional than you might expect, in matters of the heart and stereotypical gender roles. In conversation with Colonel Race: “”So you don’t consider women as `weak things`?” I considered. “No, I don’t think I do – though they are, I suppose. That is, they are nowadays. But Papa always said that in the beginning men and women roamed the world together, equal in strength […] that is why women worship physical strength in men: it’s what they once had and have lost.”[…] “And you really think that’s true? That women worship strength, I mean?” “I think it’s quite true – if one’s honest. You think you admire moral qualities, but when you fall in love, you revert to the primitive, where the physical is all that counts.” Perhaps it’s no surprise when Anne backs down to Rayburn’s insistence that she leaves for Beira: “This is man’s work. Leave it to me.” The intertwining narrative from Sir Eustace makes an excellent contrast because he is disreputable, and, in common parlance, something of a perve; and it feels wrong that Anne should nevertheless quite like him, but she does. Women, eh? Just can’t understand them. They always like the bad boys.
Several times through the book Anne refers to The Perils of Pamela; presumably this is either a film or a book that has so far satisfied her need for adventure. Back in 1922 when this book is set, there was no such thing on the screen as The Perils of Pamela. There was, however, The Perils of Pauline, a series of melodramatic short films where our heroine got into tight scrapes before being rescued by a handsome man. If this is Anne’s staple entertainment, it’s really no surprise then that her views on the status of women put the sisterhood back by a number of years. Talking of 1922, it’s quite unusual for the author to pin down the actual date of a novel so precisely. In Christie’s book, The Kilmorden Castle set sail on 17th January 1922 bound for Cape Town. In reality, there is no such place as Kilmorden, let alone a castle standing there. Pedler joins the ship so that he can personally deliver secret papers to General Smuts, who was the South African Prime Minister from 1919 to 1924. It was indeed a time of social unrest in the country, with many instances of miners striking, so maybe Pedler’s rather savage desciptions of the industrial discontent (even seen from a right-wing British perspective) were not that far from the truth. The Christies had travelled round the world throughout 1922, including some time spent in South Africa, so no doubt she was keen to put to good use whatever observations she had made of the political and social situation there.
It also explains why the book at times loses focus and reminds you more of a travelogue than a thriller, the writer almost showing off about all the places they have visited. Cape Town, Johannesburg, Muizenberg, De Aar, Kimberley, Bulawayo, The Matoppos (now Matobo National Park, where Anne and Race visit Cecil Rhodes’ grave), The Karoo (the desert), The Victoria Falls, and an island on the Zambezi all feature distinctively. In Cape Town, Anne is followed round Adderley Street (one of the most notable streets in the city) and orders two coffee ice-cream sodas at Cartwright’s. The attention to detail regarding location in this book is somewhere between fascinating and overwhelming.
As is often the case with Christie, the plot is based on an event that took place a long time in the past. In this instance, it’s the theft of some De Beer diamonds and the framing of two innocent prospectors into the bargain. These diamonds were apparently worth £100,000 when the theft took place, just before the war, according to the dancer Madame Nadina in the Prologue. That’s over £8m in today’s money. Not a bad haul; no wonder people died as a result. The other interesting sum of money that’s quoted in the book is the £87 that it costs Anne to travel 1st class on the Kilmorden Castle from Southampton to Cape Town. That’s about £3500 today. She got a bargain.
Although The Man in the Brown Suit predates Murder on the Orient Express by ten years, there were a couple of scenes that forcefully reminded me of that latter – and much better known – book. When Anne stays awake until 1am awaiting something to happen in her cabin – and it does – she is interrupted by a knock at the door by an inquiring night stewardess, whom Anne fobs off with an innocent denial. She looks down the corridor and can only see the “retreating form of the stewardess”. For some reason this strongly reminded me of the “story of a small dark man with a womanish voice dressed in Wagon Lit uniform” and a woman in a red kimono: “who was she? No one on the train admits to having a scarlet kimono. She too has vanished. Was she the one and the same with the spurious Wagon Lit attendant?” (both quotes from Murder on the Orient Express). Suspicions about the Rev Chichester also made me think of people playing parts in Murder on the OE. “If Mr Chichester had indeed spent the last two years in the interior of Africa, how was it that he was not more sun-burnt? His skin was as pink and white as a baby’s. Surely there was something fishy there? Yet his manner and voice were so absolutely it. Too much so perhaps. Was he – or was he not – just a little like a stage clergyman?” Of course, Christie would return to the idea of someone impersonating a clergyman in At Bertram’s Hotel.
As usual Mrs Christie gives us some unusual references, words and phrases for us 21st century types to decipher. First of all there are all Anne’s technical terms that she learned from her father, and that she uses to bamboozle opponents: “Frankly, I hate Palaeolithic Man, be he Aurignacian, Mousterian, Chellian, or anything else”. Aurignacian pertains (perhaps unsurprisingly) to Aurignac, in France, home of a Palaeolithic culture somewhere around 40,000 years ago. Mousterian relates to a period of Neanderthal Man earlier than the Aurignacian era, typified by the use of flints worked on one side only. It’s named after Le Moustier, the rock shelter area of the Dordogne. My OED states that both words were first used in the early 20th century – so Mrs Christie was spot on the ball with her up to date knowledge and terminology. Chellian, on the other hand, is a 19th century term that has fallen into disuse, but was the name given by the French Anthropologist G. de Mortillet to the first epoch of the Quaternary period when the earliest human remains were discovered, the word being derived from the French town Chelles. Anne is also into head shapes: Brachycephalic (short-headed), Dolichocephalic (long-headed) and Platycephalic (flat-headed); there may be a few more cephalics that I missed out.
Anne doesn’t enjoy her first few days at sea. From the safety and security of her deckchair, she observes: “brisk couples exercising, curveting children, laughing young people”. What kind of children? To curvet – apparently – is to make a leaping or a frisking motion like a horse. When Anne retreats to her cabin she notices a dreadful smell: “Dead rat? No, worse than that….Asafoetida! I had worked in a hospital dispensary during the war for a short time and had become acquainted with various nauseous drugs.” Asafoetida is an acrid gum resin with a strong smell like that of garlic, obtained from certain Asian plants of the umbelliferous genus Ferula, and used in condiments. So now you know.
Sir Eustace moans about having to play Brother Bill and Bolster Bar on board ship. Have you ever heard of these? I hadn’t. And after a bit of a search online and in my OED, I still can’t find anything that seems appropriate. If you’ve got any ideas, please let me know! Talk that his cabin might be haunted reminds him of The Upper Berth. This was a short ghost story published by Francis Marion Crawford in 1886 about a room on a train where passengers who have stayed overnight have died horrible deaths. And when he’s holding court telling his hunting adventures (seems in such bad taste today), he relates: “this friend of mine…was trekking across country, and being anxious to arrive at his destination before the heat of the day he ordered his boys to inspan whilst it was still dark.” Ordered them to do what? Apparently it’s a word of Afrikaans descent, meaning to yoke (oxen, horses, etc) in a team to a vehicle, or to harness a wagon. He also uses the phrase on the bust to mean “get drunk” – although I can’t see this usage anywhere else. I wonder if it’s an early example of on the p*ss?
Anne refers to bêche-de-mer (useful if you visit the South Sea Islands). She says she doesn’t know what it is, and nor did I, so I looked it up and it’s an edible sea cucumber. I think I preferred not knowing. ““It would hardly be respectable,” said Suzanne, dimpling.” Dimpling? Does that mean making a dimple appear on your face? Apparently it does, but I’ve never come across it as a verb. Another odd word formation is: “I was to be arrested on some charge or other – pocket-picking, perhaps.” I’d never come across “pocket-picking” before. “Pickpocketing” would be a much more common phrase. I wondered if “pickpocket” was a recent word, but no, it’s been in use for 400 years. Weird one! Among the souvenirs that Anne and Suzanne consider buying are mealie bowls (South African term for maize) and fur karosses. A kaross is a cloak or sleeveless jacket like a blanket made of hairy animal skins, worn by the indigenous peoples of southern Africa (OED). Eardsley’s son is described as “quite a parti”. A what? Again from the OED: A person, especially a man, considered in terms of eligibility for marriage on grounds of wealth, social status, etc – originally a late 18th century term taken from French.
And once again Christie shows my heathenry by offering a Bible quotation I don’t recognise. In conversation with Race, Anne says: “they win in the only way that counts. Like what the Bible says about losing your life and finding it.” A little research unearths two possible references. Matthew 10:39 – “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” But I think more likely: Luke 17:33 – “Whoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.”
So it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Man in the Brown Suit:
Publication Details: 1924. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1973. The cover illustration is the usual photo representing some of the clues or events of the book, but, interestingly, the artist got one of the details wrong. It shows the piece of paper dropped at the scene of the crime at Hyde Park Corner tube station. But it reads Kilmorden Castle 1. 7 22 and not Kilmorden Castle 17.1 22 as in the book. Sack the illustrator!
How many pages until the first death: 16; and then the second death is reported two pages later. A double whammy, one might say.
Funny lines out of context:
“In other words, the chimpanzee is a degenerate.”
“These earnest, hard-working young men with weak stomachs are always liable to bilious attacks.”
“Every now and then he galvanized himself to further efforts by ejaculating something that sounded like Platt Skeet”.
The two narrators are very lively characters, well drawn and full of quirkiness – especially Sir Eustace, with his frequent observations on the loveliness of ladies and the irritations of his colleagues.
Christie the Poison expert:
On vacation for this novel. Will no doubt be back soon.
Class/social issues of the time:
Foreigners – It wouldn’t be a Christie if she didn’t get some suspicions over foreigners in the text somewhere. Perhaps it’s no surprise that The Daily Budget is something akin to the Daily Mail of today: “In an upper room of the Mill House the body of a beautiful young woman was discovered yesterday, strangled. She is thought to be a foreigner…” Interesting that it’s not a foreigner that’s suspected of perpetrating the crime, but is the victim; it’s one of those examples of where there is a slight suspicion of “blame the victim”. Anne later goes on to interrogate the housekeeper at the Mill House. She saw the man suspected of being the murderer. “A nice-looking young fellow he was and no mistake. A kind of soldierly look about him – ah, well, I dare say he’d been wounded in the war, and sometimes they go a bit queer aftwards; my sister’s boy did. Perhaps she’d used him bad – they’re a bad lot, those foreigners.”
Also unsurprising that Pedler and his secretary Pagett have the same belief. “On the face of it, a Member of Parliament will be none the less efficient because a stray young woman comes and gets herself murdered in an empty house that belongs to him – but there is no accounting for the view the respectable British public takes of a matter. “She’s a foreigner too, and that makes it worse,” continued Pagett gloomily. Again I believe he is right. If it is disreputable to have a woman murdered in your house, it becomes more disreputable if the woman is a foreigner.”
Race – I’m still trying to make my mind up whether Christie is a latent racist or not. There are some very iffy comments that I’ve already read in the next book (see below), but I think on the whole the references to race in this book are simply the norm for the time. She uses the term “kafir” a great deal; she describes some of the souvenir tat as “absurd little black warriors” which feels a bit patronising to me; and there’s a rather awkward scene when Anne regains consciousness after an attempt on her life: “Someone put a cup to my lips and I drank. A black face grinned into mine – a devil’s face, I thought it, and screamed out.”
Classic denouement: It’s almost as though there are two denouements. The first occurs about two thirds of the way in, with the full explanation of Rayburn’s identity and his part in the story. The second, concerning the identity of “the Colonel”, slowly and excitingly becomes clear over a good twenty pages or more. And whilst it doesn’t have the classic Poirot-type set up of a room full of suspects and a man pointing “j’accuse!” it works in a much subtler and satisfying way. I had forgotten the identity of “the Colonel” and it came as quite a nail-biting surprise.
Happy ending? Of course. Anne and her man live happily ever after albeit in a rather unconventional manner and location. As for the master criminal, that person appears to get off scot-free. That might annoy the reader’s sense of justice, although Anne herself is not unhappy with the outcome.
Did the story ring true? Frankly, no! Of all the Christies I have re-read and written about so far, this is most definitely the most far-fetched. The plot leaps from coincidence to coincidence, and occasionally you have to break off and laugh at how monstrously Christie handles the reader’s credulousness.
Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. On the minus side you have the ridiculous coincidences that render the plot so unlikely as to make it laughable, its tendency to stray into travelogue and an awful lot of Barbara Cartland-like romantic nonsense towards the end that comes close to being nauseating. However, Christie gets away with it by having some extremely good characters, rather witty conversations and creating an old-fashioned “rattling good read”.
Thanks for reading my blog of The Man in the Brown Suit and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge it’s 1925, and time for The Secret of Chimneys. It sounds a little like an Enid Blyton adventure, but there I think the similarity ends. Still using her South African experiences, the story will also introduce us to Superintendent Battle – and that jolly girl that goes by the name of Bundle. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!